Keats's Six Odes

As part of the Keats200 bicentenary programme, The Keats Foundation have published some of Keats's most well known poems, the Six Odes. Performed by actor Matthew Coulton and filmed at Keats House, Hampstead, the readings are introduced below by Professor Nicholas Roe, Chair of The Keats Foundation. Watch the readings here.

Matthew Coulton’s superb new readings of Keats’s six odes were specially commissioned and recorded at Keats House in 2019 by the Keats Foundation to celebrate the bicentenary of the poet’s most extraordinary and productive year.

During 1819 Keats composed some of the greatest poems in the language including ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, ‘Lamia’, and his famous ‘Bright Star’ sonnet. He made progress with his epic Hyperion. And at the heart of Keats’s writing during these momentous months were his six odes, read here with passion, tenderness, and pathos by Matthew Coulton as if we are overhearing the poet himself reciting these words for the first time.

Readers have often wondered whether Keats’s odes should be read in a sequence, forming six lyrical reflections on the Shakespearean themes of  life, beauty and art, time, transience and mortality. It is possible that the first to be composed was ‘Ode on Indolence’ followed in spring and early summer by ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (all composed at Wentworth Place, Hampstead – now Keats House), with ‘To Autumn’ as a later lyrical impulse dating from September at Winchester. All of these poems grew out of Keats’s experiments with sonnet forms, constituting independent yet interwoven meditations with similarities of theme, style, and phrasing.

With little internal evidence from the poems or from Keats’s letters, chronological sequencing of the poems (apart from ‘To Autumn’) is inevitably conjectural. But we do have one clue as to how Keats wished his odes to be arranged and read: this is the running order that he devised for five of them in his final 1820 collection of poems, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. Here Keats sequenced his poems in two groups: ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to Psyche’ form a lyrical trio, followed a few pages later by ‘To Autumn’ and ‘Ode on Melancholy’ paired together. Perhaps this arrangement allows us to hear a melancholy under song that links the poems, entwining joy with sorrow and gathering towards the ‘cloudy trophies’ with which ‘Ode on Melancholy’ concludes.

All readers agree that Keats’s 1819 odes established his place among the English poets, and numerous poets from Tennyson to Owen to Heaney have been fascinated by the poems’ formal mastery and haunting verbal music. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘To Autumn’ may now have most appeal for readers. Yet it is perhaps the enigmatic ‘Ode on Indolence’ — a poem that seems to have been suggested by an opium-induced dream— that carries us furthest into the mystery of Keats’s creativity to encounter its terrifying, troubling presiders: Love, Ambition, and, lurking darkly in the shadows, his ‘demon Poesy’.

Hearing Matthew Coulton’s wonderfully fresh readings allows us to enjoy the unmistakable tones and turns of Keats’s odes, as we move towards the bicentenary of their poet’s death in Rome on the 23rd of February 1821. The fact that Keats died of an incurable respiratory disease should enable us to appreciate all the more deeply, in these months of Covid-19, the powerful human spirit with which his poems live and speak to us now — as they will for future generations, over many years to come.

- PROFESSOR NICHOLAS ROE, CHAIR OF THE KEATS FOUNDATION

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

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